The new material is a long-needed advance, says Brian Benicewicz, professor of chemistry at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI). “For about 30 years now, everybody has used the exact same piece of Nafion, or the same Nafion-like product. We have 30 years of history that shows what the problems are, and a number of engineering solutions to get around the problems with the membrane. What is refreshing about Joe’s approach is that now, instead of engineering around a problem membrane, he’s actually going back and trying to engineer a better membrane.”
The enhanced conductivity of the new material comes in part from having a higher acid content than Nafion – by definition, acids tend to give up protons, allowing protons to move freely through the material. The amount of acid that can be incorporated into Nafion is limited – too much acid and its polymers dissolve in water. Because the new material forms a cross-linked polymer once cured, it doesn’t dissolve in water, even after being heavily loaded with acid. As a result, “the conductivity goes through the roof,” says DeSimone.
While the material has been tested using hydrogen as a fuel, DeSimone says the lab is now testing the material with methanol – a fuel source that could be important for fuel cells in portable electronics, and maybe vehicles.